A lesson in economics: If you don't buy Fruit Loops, clipping a coupon for a dollar off of Fruit Loops doesn’t actually save money. Sure, the coupon lets you buy cereal for some amount less than you would have, but you’re still spending money you may not have to spend.
State legislators, county commissioners, school board members and city councilmen are coupon clippers, and the federal government is the Sunday newspaper, famous for offering all sorts of great deals to the policymaker in search of a bargain.
Virtually no day goes by without a promise of more money via federal grants, whether it’s for a streetcar in downtown Boise or afterschool programs statewide. Last week, the city of Nampa accepted $200,000 so that law enforcement officers can write police citations faster and with more efficiency.
While bestowing cash for myriad projects, federal officials also warn us that if we don’t change our “hedonistic” state policies in some fashion, we’ll “miss out” on thousands or maybe millions of dollars in money from Washington, D.C. Idahoans are continuously prodded to surrender their liberties in exchange for federal dough. In 1987, the federal government instructed states to pass legislation to change the minimum drinking age to 21 or risk not receiving millions in federal funding. Today, Idahoans are warned that if we don’t pass tougher seat belt laws, we’ll turn away sizable amounts of national highway funding.
Sometimes the federal government coupon is less obvious and more insidious. Medicaid programs fall into this in this category. If we start a new program, the federal government will give us three or four dollars for every dollar we put up. Cut those programs and the state will lose three or four dollars for every single incision.
This is the argument made by critics after the publication of last week’s commentary on the state’s lucrative benefits package, in which I suggested taxpayers could have saved $14 million in 2010 had state employees pitched in more for their health insurance and taxpayers less. “But Wayne,” some complained, “only a fraction of that money is general fund money. The rest is federal money. Therefore the state wouldn't really save that much. Therefore the cuts you suggested are bad.” Or useless. Or shortsighted.
I’m getting kind of tired of people using “it’s only federal money” as an excuse for waste and excess in government. Every dollar that comes from Washington, D.C. is taxpayer money. Every elected official has a responsibility to be frugal and judicious about how taxpayer money is spent regardless of its origin.
Furthermore, every debt-laden dollar from the federal government comes at a cost, mostly to our children and grandchildren. We think we’re getting a heck of a deal when we clip our coupons and stroll through the federal government checkout line with a cartload of new programs financed by federal grants. But one of these days we’ll have to tell our kids and grandkids that we created so many programs and amassed so large a national debt that we borrowed money from China and we’ve mortgaged their futures. But at least Nampa police officers were able to write speeding tickets quicker. I doubt the next generations appreciate the trade off.